Shipping Pharmaceuticals by Sea? Yes they Can!

Pharmaceuticals and other medicals and healthcare related products are big business for airlines and airports alike, but even then the shippers keep on exploring alternative modes. At a one-day conference in Brussels some alternatives were highlighted.

The conference was organised by BSMA  -  photo ms
The conference was organised by BSMA - photo ms

The conference was organised by the European chapter of the Bio Supply Management Alliance (BSMA), a worldwide community of operations and supply chain management leaders and professionals in the biotech, biopharma, and biomedical device industries. It was supported by Biolog, a pharmaceutical-related project within ‘Logistics in Wallonia’. The latter is an organisation set up to promote Wallonia as a logistics hotspot.
During the thematic session on Transport & Logistics Solutions, an interesting presentation was brought by Jeroen Janssens, Sr. Manager, Centre of Excellence for Packaging & Cold Chain at GSK Vaccines. Jeroen spoke about a project initiated by GSH to shift not only some intercontinental business from the air to the sea mode, but – within Europe – also to more road transport. Read: away from air cargo.
The reasons for GSK to look into the ocean mode were manifold, said Jeroen. There was, of course, the cost issue, but on the debit side there were other things to consider. Lead times would be extended from a few days to weeks. On the other hand, the environmental footprint would be upgraded a lot.

Does the maritime industry lack expertise?
GSK would also have to select the right partners in subcontracting freight forwarders, the shipping line and the road hauliers. “They all have to understand the processes. We had to go through a lot of risk assessment, qualifications, documentation and planning.”
Things were not made easier by the fact that pharmaceuticals make up only 2.5% of the global sea container volume. Moreover, the shipping lines do not have any expertise to speak of in shipping pharmaceuticals.
A strange comment as the air cargo industry itself says it is suffering in a shift of pharma from air-to-sea because apparently the ocean vessels and their managers have a better and shorter supply chain.
In ocean freight, there is an extensive availability of non-pharma dedicated reefer containers. The product weight is low. Among the other issues to be considered were the (temperature-) critical steps in the port handling process, during which the reefers have to be unplugged. “And”, said Jeroen, “what about reefer maintenance should the cooling system break down during the voyage?”

No ‘one-size-fits-all’
Before the project could be kicked off, a lot of testing and mapping was required. The equipment available had to be described thoroughly and the thermal history had to be mapped. Tests were carried out in extreme winter and summer conditions, with maximum and minimum loads. Jeroen: “As soon as the reefer is being loaded onto the vessel, you are very quickly going out of your desired temperature range. On top of that there is the question of liability, a very big issue for our industry due to the relatively high value of our products.”
So far, GSK has moved some 120 containers on the Europe-to America lane and it has currently the Europe to Africa lane under observation. From the tests they learned that cost savings were immense: between 50 to 80%. Packaging waste was zero. Temperature excursion turned out to be more than satisfactory.

The tonnage moved by train both ways between Europe and Far East is steadily increasing  -  photo: hs
The tonnage moved by train both ways between Europe and Far East is steadily increasing - photo: hs

From China by train
According to Jeroen, it is all about collaboration. “This is certainly not a one-size-fits-all alternative. You should still use the most appropriate mode of transportation for your products,” he concluded.
Using rail may be another alternative. It is cheaper than air, but more expensive than ocean freight. The lead times are still higher than air cargo’s, but shorter than ocean freight’s (20 days vs. 40 days). Biolog Consulting’s Raphael Cabolet elaborated on the ‘New Silk Road’ train services between China and Europe.
On this route, temperature variation may be very high. For this mode to be fully acceptable to pharma shippers, it would have to be backed by an efficient tracking & tracing system recognised by the authorities, said Raphael. “Strict standardisation is another thing. Rail transport may indeed be an alternative, but the requirements of the industry demand important improvements prior to the rail solution becoming competitive to the air freight on offer.”

Cargo dedicated airports may set the tune
Temperature excursions are negligible if you can offer a cargo-dedicated airport as a controlled environment for bio products, said Bert Selis, Liege Airport’s Cargo Manager. The airport boasts 150,000 m² of warehousing capacity, of which 7,000 m² are temperature-controlled. Contrary to a passenger-oriented airport, where aircraft parking stands are at the passenger terminals, cargo planes at LGG can park right at the warehouses.”
“Therefore, tarmac time is limited and there are no flows disruptions between storage and aircraft lading”, said Bert. LGG has four dedicated temperature-controlled facilities available. One airline, Israeli carrier CAL, and three handling companies are IATA CEIV Pharma accredited. By late spring 2017 a brand new 8,000 m² wide pharma centre will be operational.

Temperature is not the only issue to be watched
In pharmaceutical and healthcare logistics there is more to be observed than temperature alone, said Rich Kilmer CEO for Cargosense. He broke a lance for a closer Logistics oversight through the Internet of Things. “Because you do not always have all the necessary data, even if they are available through the IoT”, he said. “There are at least 6 events between pickup and delivery and it is hard to get accurate information on your consignments.”
He reminded the audience of the fact that temperature issues alone bring about a loss of USD 35 bln every year. In this respect, he praised the efforts taken by Brussels Airport to set up a pharma community in which the partners have committed themselves to keep the integrity of the consignment intact throughout the logistics process. “But this is only one airport”, he said.
According to Rich, the way forward is to build a time line of the shipment. Apart from temperature, there are other data to be observed: humidity, exposure to light, barometric pressure, shock, and tilt.”
Cargosense has developed a device that collects all the data including driving time, cross-docking, warehouse time, and conditions on tarmacs and yards an airplane data. “These data can also be used for decisions on modal shift, weighing one airport against another.”

Marcel Schoeters in Brussels

Write a comment

Comments: 0